When we talk about cybersecurity, we usually think of commercial antivirus software, ransomware attacks on large corporations or leaks of politically scandalous emails. But little is said about public security in the digital realm, and that is a big problem when we increasingly depend on information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the Internet of Things to carry out our ordinary daily activities.
Moreover, these technologies' rapid development has led to a hybridisation of crime. Many illicit activities now straddle the physical and virtual worlds, which has introduced new trade-offs and calls for a reconsideration of longstanding law enforcement strategies.
Consider illegal recreational substances. Many people now seek to acquire these over the internet, because buying online is generally seen as safer than meeting a stranger in a dark alley. But online channels tend to put people into direct contact with the organised crime groups that control most of the distribution of illicit substances. When people hand over money to these groups, they are unwittingly helping to fund the global networks that also finance terrorism and traffic in arms, people and human organs and tissues.
It is well known that the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated many forms of digital innovation and adaptability, and online drug purchases are no exception. Amphetamine-type stimulants and new psychoactive substances are increasingly available on the darknet, the open web, crypto markets and even social media.
There are both risks and potential benefits associated with these new distribution channels. On a positive note, analysing digital data flows could allow for faster detection of novel psychoactive substances that pose a threat to public health. And, of course, transacting on crypto markets or through similar digital channels can protect individual users from physical violence, theft, sexual exploitation and abduction.
Moreover, recent studies show that people who use drugs and acquire substances through ICTs are more likely to adopt harm-reduction practices and promote responsible use, generally because they are operating from private homes or other safe settings.
Authorities should keep these findings in mind as they seek to create safe public spaces online. While the state alone is responsible for defining what counts as a crime, policing criminal activity is not its sole purpose; it also must ensure public health and uphold fundamental rights such as privacy. And in the case of drugs, specifically, it will need to be more thoughtful about who is really a criminal, and who is a victim.
Accordingly, many law enforcement strategies should be reconsidered, and resources should be redirected towards strengthening the competencies of nascent cybercrime units. Rather than pursuing recreational substance users and markets, efforts should focus primarily on ICT-mediated criminal activities and operations that pose a significant threat to the public.
Here, a promising new model is "pre-arrest police diversion" or "deflection". This collaborative intervention strategy connects law enforcement, biopsychosocial agents and public-health systems to create community-based treatment and support pathways so that drug users do not have to enter the justice system. As Jac Charlier of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities explains, deflection positions "law enforcement to be the referral source to community-based drug treatment and mental health services prior to potential crises. In this way, law enforcement opens up new treatment access points not previously available to those in need".
But another problem is that it is difficult to find accurate online information about support pathways that is devoid of stigma or prohibitionist sophisms. This must change. To create safe digital spaces, we need to shift public actions vis-à-vis drug users from a repressive perspective to an educational one. That means leveraging specialised law-enforcement units and optimising the reach of biopsychosocial agents. With these modifications, we also can start to rebuild the lost trust between this population group and law enforcement agencies.
These methods are known to reduce the impact of controlled substance use on communities and households, while freeing up law-enforcement resources to focus on what really matters, such as terrorist financing, the rise of new opioid markets, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, arms trafficking and child sexual abuse material distributed online.
But, owing to the hybrid nature of these forms of cybercrime, effective implementation of new law-enforcement strategies will require international coordination. The United Nations has formed an ad hoc committee to draft a "Comprehensive International Convention on Countering the Use of Information and Communications Technologies for Criminal Purposes". But to ensure public security in cyberspace, the convention will need to couple improved law-enforcement procedures with the kind of humanitarian vision that underpins deflection.
As long as states insist on criminalising recreational substances, people will continue to seek them on the black market, and law-enforcement agencies will continue to fight an uphill battle. But with the right strategies in place, ICTs have enormous capacity both to reduce harm to drug users and to empower law enforcement to focus on truly pernicious criminal behaviour. As the world increasingly moves online, we must recognise that cybersecurity is about more than preventing hacks and fraud. It is also about improving the safety, health, and well-being of the people behind the screens. ©2022 Project Syndicate
Martin Ignacio Díaz Velásquez, an ambassador for One Young World, is Co-Founder and CEO of the Knowmad Institut.